60 minutes a day.
That is what the current Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend as a minimum for daily physical activity for children ages 6 to 17.
Only about half of youth in the United States are getting that.
Promoting physical activity can be a daunting task for some parents. But research suggests that getting your child moving at an early age is extremely important, not only for preventing childhood obesity, but for academic performance.
The Institute of Medicine of the National Academics published a report in May 2013, finding extensive scientific evidence that regular physical activity improves a child’s mental and cognitive health.
The report found “Children who are more active show greater attention, have faster cognitive processing speed, and perform better on standardized academic tests than children who are less active.”
Many parents wonder how they can enhance their child’s physical activity with busy schedules and limited time.
The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia physician Dr. Shirley Huang has three tips for parents: “Keep it simple, keep it fun, and keep it up with someone.”
Keep it simple
“Even though we all try to overextend ourselves to try to reach goals that are overambitious, it's more helpful to keep your activity goal simple. We all have busy lives in different ways. So even if your goal is to walk the dog for 15 minutes right after dinner together, this is a perfect goal if you can actually accomplish this realistically,” Huang said.
Miami-Dade County Public School District Director of Physical Education Dr. Jayne Greenberg said starting simple means being a role model for your children.
“We encourage parents to be active with their children,” Greenberg said. “Do simple things that incorporate physical activity into the everyday: walks after dinner, a family bike ride, Frisbee in the park…anything that gets you all moving together.”
Keep it fun
“People often think about 'exercise' as the means for physical activity. For some people this may be the case, for others, it may not be. Fun may mean different things to different people. Some people love running, others hate it. Some people love going to the gym, others avoid the gym. Some people love biking. Some people love playing basketball with other kids on the street. Some people love taking a walk and catching up with friend. Whatever activity you are considering doing, make sure you are having fun doing it!” Huang said.
The Miami-Dade School District has incorporated a variety of activities in to their physical education program. Kayaking, paddle boarding, Dance Dance Revolution and climbing walls encourage children to enjoy their physical activity.
“It starts with fun,” Greenberg said. “If physical activity is fun, you will get kids participating.”
While not all schools have the kind of program that Miami-Dade does, Greenberg said giving your child options in their activities helps them to take control of their healthy lifestyle.
“There are intramurals, clubs, swimming lessons, walking, going to the park,” Greenberg said. “There are so many easy ways to add activity that is fun and beneficial to a child’s day.”
Keep it up with someone.
“How many times have you had such a hard time getting yourself to do something, but then when you actually do it, you enjoy it? Motivation to get yourself started is always the hardest part. Sometimes having a buddy to keep you accountable is the key to get yourself moving. Make plans to walk with your family. Meet your classmate at the gym. Commit to walking your dog who may be your best friend. Share an activity with someone who can help you keep on track with being active!” Huang said.
Greenberg remembered walking or biking to school every day with friends when she was young.
“Now we are afraid to let our kids walk on the street alone,” Greenberg said. “You don’t see kids playing on the streets anymore. So parents have to find ways to engage their children with other activities and other people.”
Greenberg suggests the walking school bus. A walking school bus is a group of children walking to school with at least one adult. And it is just as simple as it sounds. It only takes a couple families to take turns walking with their children to school.
By including another family in your daily walk to school, you are more motivated to keep up with it. You can find a printable guide to the walking school bus here.
“It is little changes and education,” Greenberg said. “Our kids are getting it. We are using them as the change agents. They are the ones encouraging their parents now. They have changed their lifestyles.”
When parents prioritize physical activity, they prioritize educating the whole child. “Academics, health, body, mind, creativity,” Greenberg said. “They are all connected.”